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Queenie Mingmarriya Nakarra McKenzie (c. 1915–1998)

by Suzanne Spunner

This article was published:

Mistake Creek Massacre by Queenie McKenzie (1997)

Mistake Creek Massacre by Queenie McKenzie (1997)

National Musuem of Australia

Queenie Mingmarriya Nakarra McKenzie (c. 1915–1998), law woman, leader, and artist, was born around 1915 at Texas Downs station (Gawoornben), East Kimberley, Western Australia. Her mother, Nuyugaya, a Malngin–Gurindji woman also known as Dinah Nokiah, was a station cook and her gardiya (white man) father, Roy, was a horse-breaker from Queensland. Protected by her mother, she was ‘miraculously’ (Vinnicombe 2000) never taken from her family, and was grown up by her stepfather, the man she considered her real father, a renowned Gija/Kija songman, corroboree maker, and marparn (healer or clever man), Junjuwiny, also known as Spinney.

Mingmarriya, Queenie’s bush name, referred to her conception site on Texas Downs near the echidna Dreaming in the limestone hills called Yarlka. Her Gija skin name was Nakarra; her nickname, Garagarag, means light coloured hair, ‘Blondie’; and Queenie recalled her gardiya father’s connection to Queensland. She was also known as Queenie Oakes, after Walter Oakes, a gardiya prospector who was the father of her younger half-brother, Wortok July Oakes. In addition, she sometimes went under the surnames Ashton and Brennan, but it is by the name of her husband, Charlie McKenzie, that she is best known. Queenie and Charlie had no children of their own, but they grew up many.

Queenie was the station cook on Texas Downs station for forty years and, like all Gija women, worked the cattle too. In the mid-1950s, a young Aboriginal stockman called Rover Thomas was kicked by a horse and scalped. Queenie boiled a needle and sewed him up before he was taken to Wyndham hospital, where the doctor complimented her stitches. Credited with saving Thomas’s life, she stood as a classificatory mother to him, the event bonding them for life. She frequently depicted Rover Thomas Story, retablo style in paintings and prints, and the incident was immortalised in ‘The Ballad of Queenie and Rover’ (2007) by the singer-songwriter Paul Kelly.

Leprosy swept through the Kimberley in the 1960s and Catholicism came to Warmun/Warrmarn (Turkey Creek) via the Derby Leprosarium (Bungarun) run by St John of God. Queenie’s mother Dinah and her friend Winnie Budbaria, the sister of Hector Jandany, spent long periods at Bungarun. Winnie became the catechist and Dinah her devout acolyte. Queenie, who also became a strong supporter of the faith, was known for her loud and enthusiastic hymn singing.

Queenie moved to Warmun in 1973 and soon became a key figure in the burgeoning community, advocating for education and health services. In 1979 she helped to set up the Two Way Ngalangangpum/Mother and Child School, where children received both a Catholic education and instruction in Gija culture. She was the Gija language teacher there for the next thirteen years. A vocal member of the community council, camp nurse, and strong law woman, she always seemed to know what to do. Nothing daunted her: ‘Me, I’m leader for this mob and they listen and follow’ (From Digging Sticks 2001, 129). In the late 1970s she went into battle against the Argyle diamond mine to try and protect Aboriginal women’s sites at Dayiwool/Tayiwul (Barramundi Gap). She argued that Warmun women should get royalties separate from men and compensation to support the practice of women’s law: ‘They bin bugger’em up dat place now … I bin talk for that sacred place there’ (quoted in Ross 1989, 104).

In 1982 the archaeologist Patricia Vinnicombe from the Western Australian Museum was sent to map women’s sites. Finding an ally in her, Queenie seized the opportunity to revive and wake up women’s law at Warmun. She had inherited the secret sacred Mutu dance (last performed at Dayiwool in 1967) from Dinah, and so organised a large women’s law and land meeting at Mabel Downs station to revive it.

Queenie was the first woman to paint at Warmun, beginning properly in 1990. Her earliest drawing, made in 1982 for Vinnicombe, was a diagram of the body painting used in the Mutu ceremonies. Over the next five years, she ran painting classes at the school as a teaching aid to telling Dreaming stories. Joel Smoker, the coordinator at Waringarri Aboriginal Arts, asked the school principal, Sister Theresa Morellini, whether any women at Warmun were interested in painting, anyone with ‘flair’ (Smoker 2011). Queenie came forward. The Perth-based art dealer Mary Macha was already working with Rover Thomas, and Smoker sent Queenie’s work to her for appraisal. Macha sold Queenie’s Landscape at Turkey Creek (1987) to the Berndt Museum of Anthropology at the University of Western Australia, but ultimately declined to represent her. That year Queenie collaborated with the linguist Frances Kofod on a guide to hunting, cooking, and eating goanna—correct way. In 1988 the former Warmun school principal Sister Veronica Ryan returned to record the women’s stories—‘so that our young girls will read them’ (From Digging Sticks 2001, 319). Dinah, ‘the matriarch,’ and Queenie, ‘the spokeswoman and custodian of corroborees’ (From Digging Sticks 2001, 319), were Ryan’s most significant informants.

Busy as she was, Queenie still wanted to paint:

I bin start painting now. I bin all there looking at this Rover. This Rover makim money la this paint alright … I bin tryim painting la my place. I bin tryim …  Rover bin tell ‘im Smoker now, ‘Dat old woman gotta paint dat way too.’ (quoted in Vinnicombe 1996)

Encouraged by Thomas, Queenie began painting for Waringarri alongside Thomas and his painting mates—George Mung Mung, Hector Jandany, Freddie Timms, and Jack Britten—in April 1990. In July her work was included in Turkey Creek Artists, an exhibition at the Dreamtime Gallery, Perth. The following year her work featured in two Sydney exhibitions: Artists from Warmun: Turkey Creek, at Hogarth Galleries, and Aboriginal Women’s Exhibition, curated by Hetti Perkins at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Vinnicombe asserted that Queenie only started painting in earnest after the deaths of her mother and husband in 1991 and that she paid for their headstones in the Warmun cemetery with painting money. She was the catalyst for other Warmun women starting to paint, including Mabel Juli, Madigan Thomas, Shirley Purdie, and Lena Nyadbi.

Queenie’s style combined profile views of hierarchical scale proximally placed with planar depictions of rivers and roads and minimal stylised figuration. Her work was made entirely in ground-up local ochres and was distinctive for its varied colours. To ‘makim pretty’ (Ryan 1993, 43) she often used soft pinks—her favourite colour—and mauves, mixing red ochre and white kaolin clay. Initially she mined and hand ground her own ochres; however, as demands on her time increased, she traded with others in the community, but remained notably very picky about her ochres.

In 1993, in Turkey Creek at Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute, Adelaide, Queenie showed five works (as did Rover Thomas) and a photograph of her was used on the catalogue cover. That year two of her paintings appeared in Images of Power: Aboriginal Art of the Kimberley, a seminal exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV). The two paintings, God Sending the Holy Spirit and Limestone Hills Near Texas Downs, encapsulated her equal passions: Catholicism and Country. The latter painting was chosen for the catalogue cover of Power of the Land: Masterpieces of Aboriginal Art, held at the NGV in 1994, and her work was also a drawcard at Bush Women: Fresh Art from Remote Western Australia, an exhibition originally held at Fremantle Arts Centre in 1994 and restaged in 2018.

The year 1995 was pivotal for Queenie. Kevin Kelly of Waringarri Aboriginal Arts curated her first solo exhibition, Gara Garag: My Life Longa Texas at William Mora Galleries, Melbourne. Kelly also organised for the Warmun artists to begin print-making at Northern Editions in Darwin. These initiatives heralded a rich time for Queenie, but success invariably led to enormous pressures. Vinnicombe had encouraged Queenie to paint her Country, but when she returned in 1995, she was alarmed by Queenie’s prodigious output. Over eighteen months, Queenie had made hundreds of variously documented works for Waringarri Arts; for the Ochre Gallery in Kununurra; for private entities embedded within the community that supplied galleries in Sydney and Melbourne; and for individuals, including the Melbourne dealer Neil McLeod who turned up at the pensioners unit at Warmun, where Queenie lived, to buy paintings to order and create a provenance descriptor for the future.

Vinnicombe had returned to Warmun to record the story of the Texas Mob (the Gija families living at Texas Downs under the protection of the gardiya head stockman, Jimmy Klein), map women’s sites and Queenie’s significant places, document an accompanying series of paintings, and assist Queenie to stage the Mutu once more. Circumstances stymied their joint plans to mount an exhibition and create a book from Vinnicombe’s extensive interviews.

In what would be her final year, 1998, the richness and complexity of Queenie’s life was manifest. Warmun Art Centre (WAC), a community-owned and operated facility that Queenie and Hector Jandany had fought for, opened, pausing, if not stopping, the rampant exploitation of senior Warmun artists. In August, in Darwin, she danced the Goorirr Goorirr (Kurrirr-Kurrirr/Gurrir Gurrir/Krill Krill/Kuril Kuril) for Rover Thomas, her great friend, who had died earlier that year. Kimberley Art, a gallery in Melbourne, mounted a solo exhibition of her recent work (1994–98), sourced neither from Waringarri Aboriginal Arts nor WAC, in September, and in October she was designated a State Living Treasure by the Western Australian government. She died suddenly at Warmun on 16 November 1998.

The National Museum of Australia purchased Queenie’s Mistake Creek Massacre (1997) in 2005, but quickly banished it to storage due to the controversial nature of the story it told: a 1915 massacre the artist had heard about as a child. In 2012 the museum’s council voted to include the painting in the institution’s most significant collection, the National Historical Collection. In 2016 Queenie’s Horso Creek Killings (1996), which tells the story of the Horseshoe Creek massacre in the 1880s, was purchased by the Australian War Memorial. These works attest to Queenie’s stature as an artist and custodian of Gija people’s stories.

Suzanne Spunner is of Anglo and Irish descent and grew up on Boonwurrung Country.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Daley, Paul. ‘What Became of the Mistake Creek Massacre.’ Guardian, 4 July 2013. Accessed 28 February 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/jul/04/mistake-creek-massacre-indigenous-painting. Copy held on IADB file

  • From Digging Sticks to Writing Sticks: Stories of Kija Women as Told to Veronica Ryan. Translations by Eileen Bray and Mary Thomas. Leederville, WA: Catholic Education Office of Western Australia, 2001

  • Kofod, Frances, Eileen Bray, Rusty Peters, Joe Blythe, and Anna Crane. Gija Dictionary. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press. 2022

  • Mackinolty, Chips. ‘Painter and Keeper of Native Law.’ Australian, 23 December 1998, 14

  • Ross, Eileen, ed. Impact Stories of the East Kimberley. Translated by Eileen Bray. Canberra: East Kimberley Impact Assessment Project, 1989

  • Ryan, Judith. Images of Power: Aboriginal Art of the Kimberley. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 1993

  • Smoker, Joel. Interview by Suzanne Spunner, 2011

  • Spunner, Suzanne. ‘Vindicating Rover Thomas.’ PhD thesis, University of Melbourne, 2012

  • Vinnicombe. Patricia. ‘Tributes: Queenie McKenzie.’ Artlink 20, no. 1 (March 2000)

  • Vinnicombe, Patricia. Women’s Sites, Painting and Places: Warrmarn Community, Turkey Creek: A Project with Queenie McKenzie, Funded by the National Estate Grants Programme, 1995–1996. Perth: Aboriginal Affairs Department, 1996

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Suzanne Spunner, 'McKenzie, Queenie Mingmarriya Nakarra (c. 1915–1998)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mckenzie-queenie-mingmarriya-nakarra-31999/text39485, published online 2023, accessed online 18 April 2024.

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Mistake Creek Massacre by Queenie McKenzie (1997)

Mistake Creek Massacre by Queenie McKenzie (1997)

National Musuem of Australia

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Oakes, Queenie
  • Ashton, Queenie
  • Brennan, Queenie
Birth

c. 1915
Kimberley, Western Australia, Australia

Death

16 November, 1998 (aged ~ 83)
Warmun, Western Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Occupation
Awards
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